Ancient Marginalia: Resurrecting the Multitext

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Ancient Marginalia

Writing between the lines

Reading has always been interactive.  From cuneiform to KF8, there’s a thread of physical interplay between the craftsman, the form, and the reader.  The latter’s role becomes especially rigorous when writing become longer form and more widely distributed and when the tools for marking them up became closer at hand.  It was not easy or common for readers to annotate or mark up a cuneiform tablet or wall of hieroglyphs.  However, the advent of vellum and ink afforded readers a more active role.  Borrowing from contemporary parlance, one could say this new platform allowed for the production and sharing of user-generated content.

Surely, early scrolls and folios were produced in a very hands-on manner.  But even then consuming these texts was often a manual, active experience.  Marginalia, user-generated annotations (and annotations on annotations), dates back to at least the 5th Century BCE.  A rich example of ancient marginalia is the scholia on Homer – “these are ancient commentaries, usually preserved in the margins of manuscripts of Homer; and they are very copious, far more substantial than for any other ancient work”.  The Iliad scholia, for example, is so annotated by readers (and by annotations on those annotations) that the original text is almost buried.  The annotations alone fill a over 7 volume set.

Homeric scholars refer to the the Odyssey and Iliad, which fluidly evolved from oral to written and richly annotated and thusly further transformed, as the Homer Multitext. Multitext – what a useful term: an evolving text delivered on a platform with original content alongside and influenced by a multitude of user-generated threads.

The ancient practice of multitexting was expedited by the fact that ancient texts – the scrolls and codices themselves – were shared.  They were passed down and passed along.  As hand made objects, they were few and precious. This preciousness meant they were preserved and shared.  As shared objects, they became a multitext platform for their readers – a protracted and influential reading group including dozens of participants and spanning hundreds of years.

Post-Gutenberg book abundance, book ownership, and book fetishism curtails the multitexting impulse.  Indeed, if a friend returned a borrowed book heavily annotated I would question his character. Used books are marked down if they are marked up. But is this true for ‘used apps?’

But here at the dawn of the digital post-book era, multitexting may resume.  Those of us designing and developing new reading experiences should study the use cases, features, and architecture of the multitext.  One can find current intimations of the type of shared annotations that might facilitate a digital multitext; Kindle’s shared highlights, and even shared comments in Google Docs are compelling.  As currently conceived, however, none of these tools could support something as robust and rich and spectacular as the Iliad scholia.  And that was just written on animal skin.  The post-book object will be a multitextual object.  Surely, we can take some folks off of arguing fixed vs. relowable and put them to work on thinking through standards, designs, and strategies to resurrect the multitext.

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Corey Pressman (@cspressman)

About Corey Pressman (@cspressman)

Corey is an anthropologist, futurist, author, and speaker. He is busy imagining and enacting our digital future as Director of Experience Strategy at Neologic, a Portland-based agency and imagination lab. A Fellow of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, Corey regularly publishes and presents on the past, present, and future of media. He recently contributed the closing chapter to the book Examining Paratextual Theory and its Applications in Digital Culture.

3 thoughts on “Ancient Marginalia: Resurrecting the Multitext

  1. Pingback: You’re Literate, But Do You Know How to Read? | Kdan Blog

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